John Berryman Leapt Here

Mapping the literary landmarks of the Twin Cities

 

It's curious. The Twin Cities guides and maps in any local bookstore contain myriad fine-dining options, paeans to quaint bed and breakfasts, and tributes to barons of industry and the Summit Avenue shells they once inhabited. Absent amid the pages of testimonials to the region's quality of life, however, is any suggestion of a literary history. Which prompts the question: What's missing? And from where exactly is it missing: the cities or the map? If it's true, as Saul Bellow insisted, that the Twin Cities are not celebrated as the home of poems and novels, does that leave room for the notion that they--these poems and novels--are out there somewhere nonetheless, lost, neglected, languishing in obscurity?

The relationship between writers and cities is virtually always symbiotic. Writers find refuge, community, and inspiration in the places they call home, and cities claim and celebrate these writers and their works as part of their cultural identity and shared history. A sort of incorporation takes place, an inspired process of osmosis whereby a city becomes a place both real and imagined. This is, fundamentally, the chemistry of romance, the alchemy by which a city transcends its quotidian realities and becomes the province of dreams, drama, and art.

The history, character, and mythos of a great city is always shaped and elevated by the literature it inspires, by the writers and poets who immortalize its streets, neighborhoods, and institutions. Over time, in fact, cities come to be defined, and to define themselves, through the long (and wide) lens of their literary portraits and histories. London is now synonymous with the city of Dickens's imagination, Dublin with the stories and novels of James Joyce. The geography and culture of Paris sometimes seem as much the creation of such writers as Stendhal, Balzac, and Victor Hugo, as of Louis XIV, Napoleon III, or Baron Haussmann. The whole world knows the teeming romance and squalor of New York through its innumerable literary chroniclers, from Henry James, Edith Wharton, Claude McKay, Dorothy Parker, and Joseph Mitchell to Tom Wolfe, Paul Auster, and even Candace Bushnell. Chicago also has a large and celebrated literary history and identity, its hard-nosed, no-nonsense reputation cemented in the works of, among others, Frank Norris, Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, Ben Hecht, and James Farrell.

The literary landscapes of all of the cities mentioned above have been scrupulously mapped, annotated, and acknowledged; walking their streets, you have the inescapable sense that you are moving through the pages of books. And for the truly curious there are maps and guidebooks to steer you to the various literary landmarks, from the places where writers lived and worked, to the saloons, bookstores, and neighborhoods where they congregated and where the ideas for their poems, stories, and books were hatched.

It says something--it says a lot, actually--about the Twin Cities and their notoriously short-sighted institutional and cultural memory that there is so little sense here of a literary history. The average Twin Cities resident perhaps knows that F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul. There is some recollection, diminishing every year, that the poet John Berryman jumped to his death from the Washington Avenue Bridge on the University of Minnesota campus. There's A Prairie Home Companion, of course, and the wide recognition and acclaim accorded Garrison Keillor and his fictional creation Lake Wobegon. But what else is there? What else do you know? Could you, for instance, name a definitive Twin Cities novel, one book that has defined these cities to the world outside our borders? Not much comes to mind.

Some of the blame for that must lie with the writers--and they have always been plentiful, including many legendary names--who have lived and worked among us. Many of the most widely recognized Minnesota novelists have written evocative and celebrated (and often enough bitterly satiric) portraits of outstate life, from Nobel laureate and Sauk Centre native Sinclair Lewis's harsh examinations of small-town hypocrisy to the provincial novels and stories of Jon Hassler, Keillor, and J.F. Powers. Others were born here or went to college here, only to make their reputation elsewhere. There have been a handful of mystery and suspense novelists, mostly in recent years, who have explored the actual terrain of the Twin Cities. Most notable might be a number of the late Thomas Gifford's thrillers (Windchill Factor, etc.), the crime novels of John Sandford and Steve Thayer, and the oddball capers of Pete Hautman, whose work has featured such distinctive Twin Cities settings as the State Fair (The Mortal Nuts).

Still, you would be hard-pressed to name a major writer who has celebrated either St. Paul or Minneapolis, or who has brought its culture and character fully to life in the pages of a book. If the writers share some of the blame, then the cities themselves must also take their lumps. The same thing is as true of large cities as it is of actors and musicians: It is very difficult to be discovered if you are not, in fact, a discovery. The Twin Cities have always been hospitable places for writers, with their scores of universities and cultural institutions and the vast beneficence of state arts boards and private foundations. They have not, however, done a very good job of fostering cultural community or of preserving and promoting their own history and diversity. The Twin Cities literary community also has a longstanding reputation for being staid, homogeneous, and deadly earnest. As Sinclair Lewis wrote nearly 60 years ago, "a state like this needs more eccentrics and more Jews."

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